For much of my life, I have fought to overcome my fear of lifts or, as my transatlantic friends call them, elevators. And in a bid to vanquish my apprehension that so often amounts to terror, I have not only amassed a library of self-help manuals, and signed up to an online group whose members exchange the niceties of their respective phobias, but have over the years even set aside a goodly portion of my salary to pay for the services of a much-esteemed shrink, specializing in all kinds of aversions relating to lifts, planes, and cliffs.
And I do not think for a moment that I have wasted time or energy or money on doing all I can to rid myself of this bugbear, a fear of lifts, as it has come to disrupt so many aspects of my life, and not least the fact that on returning home after work, I find myself hauling my weary body up innumerable flights of stairs.
But, unable as I was to exorcize this specter, the evening that had filled me with such expectation finally came as, perfumed and besuited, I made my way to the home of the leading literary agent, Braulio Dorfman, to discuss over drinks the sale of my most recent book. It was surely no ill omen that Braulio had invited me, to negotiate the transaction, into the recesses of his duplex and, walking alongside the railings that formed the perimeter of the Botanic Gardens, I pictured myself, at the cue of a most generous offer, signing the contract before complimenting my host on his choice of an excellent French cognac.
Ringing the bell, a dapper man of less than medium height, and with birdlike eyes, was soon scurrying towards me.
Saying “Good evening, Thomas,” and thanking me profusely for the bottle of wine with which I regaled him, Braulio motioned me in the direction of the lift.
“I wonder if I could possibly use the stairs?” I hazarded.
“So are you training for some sporting event?” Braulio asked half bemusedly and half facetiously, before going on to say, “In any case, your aerobics will have to wait, as we have no such thing as stairs, with the closest thing being a clapped-out fire escape no one has used for the last thirty years, and you can’t possibly use that.”
“So there is no other way up?” I mooted. Noting my pallor, Braulio countered, “Sit in the reception area for a few minutes and I’ll get you a glass of water.”
Accepting the cool receptacle, I decided to come clean.
“The thing is that I have a mortal fear of lifts.”
Braulio fastened his eyes reassuringly on mine.
“I understand, but it’s only a twenty-second ride. Take a deep breath as you enter and, if you need to, hold my hand.”
Emboldened by such an expression of concern, I stood up to follow Braulio towards the lift, but no sooner had I taken a few steps than my body was convulsed by a bout of extreme shaking.
“I’m sorry, but I can’t go through with it. Please let me invite you to any restaurant of your choice.”
Braulio appeared deflated as he remonstrated, “But I’ve gone to such an effort, making home-made sushi, and even got up early this morning to go to the fish market.”
Desperate to contain his growing disappointment, I ventured, “I do appreciate your efforts and apologize unreservedly. In any case, there is an excellent sushi bar just three blocks away, and it will be on me, of course.”
Not for a moment seduced by my offer, Braulio stated his case,
“I can see that you are grappling with your fear, but nonetheless, I have to say that this is most vexing for me, and especially given the hard work I put in for you at the publishing house to get you the best deal possible, and not to mention all the sushi I prepared with a view to a quiet, private evening to hone the finer points of your contract. But, seeing that you put this angst that you nurse before professional concerns, may I suggest that we talk by phone to schedule another day, and that we waste no further time in bidding each other goodnight.”
Following Braulio to the main door, I looked again at his hawkish eyes and thought that if he had been endowed with wings. he would surely have pecked me. Virtually slamming the door in my face, he appeared to morph into a dog as he barked, “You really should have made things clear from the outset.”
Walking home. I told myself that the showdown with Braulio would soon be resolved, but the fragrance that wafted from the park’s blooms had a sickly smell, as if destined to die in the early spring.
I was confident that by now Braulio would have brushed aside his initial irritation with me and that, adopting his best bedside manner, would reassure me that my trepidation must surely be shared by half of the population at least, if only they would admit it. Clearing my throat, I phoned, and given that I had left his apartment block just fifteen minutes before, was surprised to hear the answer machine.
I was reluctant to leave a message and phoned again, this time with whatsapp, but it was to no avail, as my call rang out. Not that any of my subsequent calls, made at ten minute intervals, met with a human voice and my countless text messages, each more abjectly contrite than the last, met with silence.
Giving up for the night, the next morning I bolted breakfast to phone Braulio in his office, but his secretary informed me, time after time like a mantra, that he was in a meeting.
Telling myself that it was not for nothing that I was a writer, and that my prose would have the power to disarm Braulio, I turned to e-mails. I told him that, well aware that my inordinate unease concerning lifts was an impediment to the smooth course of my life, I had sought out the services of myriad psychotherapists, and had met more than one charlatan along the way. But, I contended, were we not too cavalier about such vehicles that could, all too often, prove to be our nemesis, propelling us in our most unguarded moments to our doom? And, in this regard, would one ever forget the fate of the young American student who had gone to live in Mexico City, to learn Spanish and to find love, and whose sweater had got caught up so freakishly in the lift, resulting in an agonizing death?
And worse, if there could be a worse. the Chinese lady who clawed at the metallic shaft for days, only to expire, before the workmen, who had failed to ascertain if anyone was inside before deactivating the control panel, returned from their vacation?
And one did not even need to go so far afield because, even in the city of Buenos Aires, the newspapers repeated daily the plummeting of ramshackle lifts in mid-flight.
And then, adding to such a litany of dereliction, there was the evening that the lift in my building stopped between two floors and, bereft of my mobile phone to alert my friends to my plight, I rang the emergency alarm, but no one came, at least not until I had banged on the lift door for an hour, and what would have happened if no one had come, as no sign of life from Braulio ever came?
For weeks, I wallowed in dejection, grieving the coveted literary deal that could have been mine, but Marcus Cantaloro’s e-mail, providential in its timing, inspired me with new-found self-belief.
And whoever, who has the slightest inkling of contemporary Argentine literature, has not heard of the great Marcus Cantaloro or recited by heart his haunting poems, “The Tomb My Totem” and “My Life Closed Once”?
To us what Borges was to a previous generation, no would-be detractor can claim that Cantaloro’s work falls short of that of his maternal great-aunt, the renowned German scribe, Eloise von Knickerbocker.
And so it was the greatest honor to be asked by the author himself to translate into English his latest volume of verse, “I Am Your Grave”, dedicated once again to the memory of his late wife Michelle, dead from a mosquito bite in Guatemala, and whose memory had cast such a long shadow over every word that he had written since then.
Mindful of Braulio, and determined not to sabotage the possibility of working with Cantaloro, I agreed there and then to the meeting that Marcus had proposed the following Tuesday morning at eleven.
Sending off my message in haste, I realized that I had failed to enquire as to the existence of a flight of stairs in his building but, sensing that any such question would seem out-of-place, I decided to take my chance.
Ringing the bell not a second late on the appointed day, I waited until a tall man with a stoop, about seventy years old, and with grey hair tending to white, opened the door, extending a bony hand towards me and announcing in a reedy voice, “Marcus Cantaloro, a pleasure to meet you, my young man.”
As he made a gesture to me to follow him to the lift, I blurted out, “I wonder if I could possibly use the stairs?”
He turned round to look at me, his brow perplexed.
“The thing is,” I lied, “I have a marathon coming up, and using the stairs instead of the lift helps me to be in tip-top shape.”
He looked lost in thought.
“My darling Michelle was athletic too, but it did her no good when faced with the mosquito. As for the stairs, they are out-of-use, as falling masonry has made them unsafe.”
Anxious not to make the same mistake as I had made with Braulio, I followed Marcus meekly into the tiny elevator, a diminutive prison cell, even for two people. My whole body quaking as the prehistoric contraption clambered up each floor, I gathered up the last shreds of my self-possession and spluttered, “I really should have brought my sweater. I could never have imagined that the summer would end so suddenly.”
Entering the inner sanctum of Cantaloro’s literary creation, I felt immediately at home, aware as I was that my host, in one poem after another, had distilled its lugubrious essence: the blinds closed against the day, the lamps like gloomy sentinels emitting their feeble light, the hundreds of silver-framed photographs taking up every other space to proclaim the ineffable beauty of Michelle de Lourens, herself a gifted author and dead at thirty-three.
At Marcus’s bidding, I sat on the sofa and, taking his place beside me, his hand grazed my leg.
“Having read your renditions, you are my choice to translate into English my latest collection, one that I came so close to calling, ‘No End of Epitaphs’, and that is a book, I assure you, that makes Hamlet’s most heart-rending moments seem like slapstick comedy.”
He placed his hand firmly on my left thigh.
“And, since Michelle’s death, I have lived only to transcribe the loss that as a man, if not as a writer, has reduced me to this rubble.”
Marcus’s musings were interrupted by the appearance of a buxom woman, barely into her thirties, who, offering us tea or coffee, scampered into the kitchen.
“And, to boot, there is the guilt. She had a presentiment about Guatemala, but I wouldn’t give way and go to Cuba. One bite is all it took. And, all my life since then, I’ve cursed myself for my pig-headedness.”
Tears coursing down his cheeks, he reclined his head on my shoulder. And I found myself wishing that I were capable of the necessary fellow-feeling to put my arm around him but, faced with such tremulous vulnerability, I felt ill-at-ease.
Standing up, I exclaimed, “I’m sorry. I completely forgot that I have another appointment in less than an hour, and it will take me that long to get there, Would you mind if, over these days, we discuss by phone how best to proceed with our collaboration?”
He fixed me with the most woebegone expression that I have ever witnessed.
“Could you please make your way out. As you will observe, I’m in mourning, and in no fit state to accompany you. My grief always gets worse after four in the afternoon, because that is when she died.”
Departing the funereal lair, and having tried in vain to open the door that led to the stairs, so that I could make my own way down, circumventing the fallen debris, I waited eternally for the lift to arrive.
I could not get out of my mind the image of Marcus, sitting on the sofa inconsolably, as he hugged a cushion for comfort, or the strains of his sorrowful ramblings, until I heard, shattering my reverie, a man and a woman laughing like hyenas and the voice of Marcus Cantaloro, as it intoned, “Thank God the fool has gone.”
I don’t recall how I summoned the courage to descend to the ground floor where, impelled by a growing sense of urgency, I opened the door of the building to emerge into the street.
As if searching for a clearing in a forest dense with mist, I walked a few blocks to a corner where two avenues intersected, and hailed a taxi.
Although I could not yet banish from my thoughts my all-too-recent encounter with Marcus Cantaloro, I knew that the day would surely come when he would, like a nightmare receding, be lost to memory, with his words, which I had had no other choice than to hear, no longer ringing like a torment in my ears.
Looking ahead, I had to prepare for Benito’s arrival. He would stay the night, as he did invariably these days and, after watching a movie and sharing a pizza, we would lie on the bed to make love and sleep.
In an hour or two, he would arrive and, leaving my flat to welcome him, I would wait in the lobby until, opening the lift door, he would greet me with a smile.
"The Power of Prose"